My Rocky III analogy held tonight, quite literally. All you need to do is look at the glare Rudy shoots Ron Paul during their exchange. This was Giuliani’s “I paid for this microphone” moment. Critics have questioned whether Giuliani has the fire in the belly for the long campaign, pointing to confused and muddled responses he has given in interviews and in the first debate. Tonight Giuliani demonstrated why he is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. The Rudy who showed up tonight was the tough as nails prosecutor who took down the mob, the crime-fighting mayor, the leader who displayed steely resolve on the darkest day in American history. Cynics will say his interjection after Paul’s comments was an example of crass political opportunism, but it was pretty clear it came straight from the heart of “someone who lived through the attack of Sept. 11.”
Even before the Paul exchange, it was pretty clear we would be watching a different Rudy than the one from the first debate. From the get go, he seemed more confident, and offered crisp clear answers on Iraq and spending. He also flashed his sense of humor with the “Rudy McRomney wouldn’t be a bad ticket” line. On abortion, again, there’s a certain element of the party that won’t support him, but he fielded questions on the topic much more deftly than he has before. I thought framing it as a small government issue was a smart tactic as well. (Of course, taking his stance on the issue as a given.)
The performance reinforces my view that Giuliani’s decision to run as an unabashedly pro-choice seems to have lifted a major weight off of his shoulders, making him generally more forceful and self-assured.
As for the other contenders, I thought it was interesting to see the bad blood that has been simmering beneath the surface between the McCain and Romney camps begin to come to a boil. In a FoxNews interview after the debate, Romney stepped up the rhetoric, accusing McCain of flip-flopping on a number of issues, so I’m sure they’ll be more words between the two campaigns as the days, weeks and months move forward. I think it could get ugly between these two, and that has to be good news for Rudy.
After a successful initial debate, I think that Romney was a bit weaker this time around. Although he avoided any major gaffes, which is the important thing, he was much more on the defensive than last time as he was challenged with more pointed questions on his policy reversals.
Mike Huckabee turned in another strong performance, and clearly lends himself well to this format.
Tom Tancredo and Jim Gilmore both missed major opportunities. Tancredo gave a weak answer on his signature issue, immigration. And Gilmore had trouble articulating what was wrong with Rudy McRomney and why he is the true conservative. None of the other candidates were particularly memorable.
But let’s face it, I don’t think I’m being overly Rudy-centric by thinking that six months from now, the only thing people will remember about this debate is the Rudy-Paul slugfest.
More thoughts from John Tabin on the main site.